Tablas Creek and Beaucastel Dinner in New York
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Sulfites in Wine - What's Causing my Headache?

In my recent post on lessons I've learned from blogging I recommend that bloggers write about the questions they find themselves asked all the time.  Following my own advice, I realized I've recently answered several questions about sulfites in our wines.  There are two phrasings to this question, both getting at the same issue.  One phrasing runs along the line of "oh, you farm organically.  Does this mean that your wines are sulfite-free?"  The other phrasing is "I get headaches from the sulfites in wine.  Does the fact that you're organic mean I can drink your wines?" 

Just the other day, I got pulled in by a discussion on organic wines and sulfites on the excellent blog 1 Wine Dude.  As I was writing the response, I realized that this is exactly the sort of issue I'm recommending that others address.  The confusion surrounding the issue would be farcical if it didn't negatively impact the acceptance of organic wines in the marketplace.  The punch line of the joke (which no one I know really finds funny) is that sulfite sensitivities don't typically cause the headaches that most people who believe they suffer from sulfite allergies describe as their principal symptom.  Those who report headaches are far more likely to be reacting to the histamines (or, more rarely, the tannins) in wine.  Or the alcohol.

As for us, yes, we use sulfites.  If we didn't, our wines would be unstable to a degree we're not comfortable with, and we're making wines for aging over the long term.  We do what we can to minimize the concentration to under 100 parts per million (the average American wine is about 350 ppm).  Still, I am not aware of any top winery anywhere in the world who omits sulfites entirely from the winemaking process.  And, sulfites have been used since Roman times in wine.  The fact that (unlike in other countries) United States regulations prohibit us from calling our wines organic is an unfortunate consequence of the widespread fear in America that many, many people are allergic to sulfites.  Fortunately, sulfite allergies are quite rare, and wine contains minor quantities of sulfites compared to other common foods.   

Important fact #1: If you (other than wine) eat quite normally, and wine (particularly young, red wine) gives you headaches, you almost certainly are not allergic to sulfites. 

Sulfur occurs in many foods, including (according to WebMD):

  • Baked goods
  • Soup mixes
  • Jams
  • Canned vegetables
  • Pickled foods
  • Gravies
  • Dried fruit
  • Potato chips
  • Trail mix
  • Beer and wine
  • Vegetable juices
  • Sparkling grape juice
  • Apple cider
  • Bottled lemon juice and lime juice
  • Bottled Tea
  • Many condiments
  • Molasses
  • Fresh or frozen shrimp
  • Guacamole
  • Maraschino cherries
  • Dehydrated, pre-cut or peeled potatoes

Particularly common sources of sulfites are dried fruit, potato chips and french fries, and condiments.  Three ounces of dried apricots, for example, contain 175mg of sulfur dioxide.  By contrast, a four ounce glass of Tablas Creek (at 100ppm of sulfites) contains about 12mg.  Even a glass of wine with average sulfite levels would contain about 40mg of sulfur dioxide.  You'd need to drink half a bottle to get the same sulfites as that handful of apricots. 

The FDA estimates that about 500,000 people in the United States have sulfite allergies (about two-tenths of one percent of the population).  Those who do need to be very careful about what they eat and drink, as exposure to sulfites can cause respiratory reactions.  Six people have died in the last 30 years in the United States due to sulfite reactions (none traceable to wine).  The reactions to a sulfite allergy are typically wheezing, coughing, hives, abdominal pain, and difficulty swallowing, the same reactions you'd expect from, say, a medical allergy (and, in fact, those with allergies to Sulfa drugs are much more likely to have other sulfite allergies).

Headaches, on the other hand, are not mentioned in the literature on sulfites, but are common reactions to an excess of histamines.  Many more people have sensitivities to histamines, which are common in pollen as well as many other plant materials.  Reactions to histamines include headache, itchy eyes, runny nose and flushed skin... the common effects of hay fever.   It's less well known that histamines are also common in the skins of grapes.  This explains why many people are sensitive to only red wines (which spend time in fermentation next to grape skins) or only to young wines (histamines break down over time in bottle).

Important fact #2: as with seasonal allergies, sensitivities to the histamines in wine can be treated with an over-the-counter antihistamine such as Benadryl or Claritin.

So why does the government mandate that wines display "CONTAINS SULFITES" on the back of nearly every label, but make no mention of histamines, when histamine reactions are much more common than sulfite allergies?  Essentially, histamine reactions are not particularly dangerous.  Inconvenient, sure, but not life-threatening.  However, from the number of questions I get, it's clear that the government-mandated warning has convinced lots of people that they're allergic to something they're not, and obscured the easy steps people could take to minimize their reactions. 

I've already written about how the fact that American wines with sulfites are prohibited from being labeled organic discourages vineyards from farming organically, so I won't go into that again here.  It's just another example of the unintended consequences of even well-intentioned government.